This one's for you, Shuford

By Mike London, The Salisbury Post Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque called Shuford Stadium a “very hostile environment.” But to Catawba coach David Bennett, Shuford is considerably friendlier. He calls it a “great old lady.” Bennett holds a higher opinion of the Indians’ ancient arena, because his team rallied there Saturday to conquer Conque’s club 35-34 in a first-round playoff free-for-all. Good ol’ Shuford, where the Indians have played like supermen the past three seasons. Saturday’s win sends the seventh-ranked Indians (10-1) to Valdosta State (12-0) for next Saturday’s Division II South Regional championship game.It also airmails Conque’s 14th-ranked Bears back home to hibernate and shuts down that “great old lady” for good. Bennett hates to see Shuford go, but loved the way his warriors produced a stylish curtain call that won’t be forgotten. The Indians overcame a 31-20 halftime deficit, outslugging one of the world’s finest offensive machines. “This had to be one of the most exciting games ever played in this stadium,” exhaled a spent Bennett. “What a way to go out. What a great tribute to all who ever played here.” Catawba’s defense, ranked third in the nation, was shredded like wheat in the first half. Back on their heels against UCA’s air show, the Indians had to employ five DBs, relegating one of their all-star linebackers on the sidelines. But even arrayed in what amounted to a perpetual prevent defense, Catawba couldn’t slow quarterback Brian Stallworth. He zipped three TD passes. Catawba took a momentum hit at the end of the first half when a 41-yard field goal try by Matt Gross sailed just left of the uprights. That miss sent the Indians trudging to the locker room armed with the scary knowledge that UCA had scored 17 unanswered points. Bennett insisted his team made no major adjustments at the half and Conque concurred. But somewhere in that Tribe locker room there was a gut-check. “They just decided to settle down and play harder,” said Bennett. “Decided to stop missing tackles and start making plays.” Most everyone on a proud team stepped forward. Call the roll. Sore-shouldered linebackers Darris Morris and Shawn McBride. Bum-kneed Joe Nixon, the emotional leader of the offensive line. Quarterback Luke Samples, who’d been ailing with a flu bug. Linebacker Todd McComb, who would record 14 tackles. And that stampeding stallion of a tailback,k Rodney Wallace, who would rush for 185 yards. Wideout Nick Means may have stood tallest of all. He decided he was playing not just for himself but for all those Indians too banged-up to suit up. Conque blamed poor tackling, penalties and dropped passes for his team’s demise, but in reality, it was simply old-fashioned Indian determination. “We beat a great football team,” said Bennett. “I ain’t seen a team that big since I was at Clemson. Athletes? Oh, baby, they’ve got ’em. But we had the heart to get it done.” UCA (9-3) stopped Catawba’s first third-quarter possession and started a march to push the game out of reach. But the turning point came at the 9:22 mark when UCA receiver Michael Norvell, who had torched Catawba in the first half, found an open seam and Stallworth sent a spiral toward him. Norvell leaped, made the catch, but then was crunched in midair by cornerback Jamel Jackson. Norvell and the ball tumbled earthward separately and Catawba’s defense had finally sent the message that the easy pickings were over. UCA moved as far as the Indian 38 on that drive, but Stallworth got careless and Morris slapped the ball free. Then 300-pound David Huey swooped in like a helicopter and hauled the ball to the UCA 27. Six players later, Samples scored. Then he added a 2-point conversion pass to Cedric Squirewell. With 5:33 left in the third, the Indians trailed 31-28. UCA roared right back, pushing inside the Catawba 10. The key play came on second-and-goal at the Indian 9. Morris sniffed out a reverse and made the tackle for a loss. There was also a holding call on the Bears, but to the amazement of some, Bennett declined it. “I asked my defensive coordinator (Curtis Walker), ‘You want second-and-long or you want third down?’ ” explained Bennett. Walker wanted third and with good reason. ACU wasn’t going to be pushed out of field goal range by a 10-yard penalty. By refusing the penalty and taking the play, Catawba left the Bears with one more shot at a touchdown instead of two. And McComb took care of that one shot at six, barging in for Catawba’s only sack of the day. On fourth down, ACU took the field goal, but Catawba trailed only 34-28. “That worked out like we hoped,” said Bennett. “We were willing to go down six, because we thought we could still get seven.” Catawba got those seven swiftly after the inspired Means broke loose on the ensuing kickoff. He ripped off 51 yards to the UCA 39. Four plays later, the 230-pound Wallace tractored over to tie the game. Gross’ PAT made it 35-34 Indians. Now all Catawba’s defense had to do was keep a team that averages 42 ppg. off the scoreboard for the final 12 minutes, 56 seconds. Yeah, that’s all. But it’s exactly what the Indians did. The clock moved inexorably the rest of the day, but the scoreboard never did. That 35-34 edge held up. Catawba’s defense stopped UCA at the 2:42 mark when reserve DB Nick Hopper got a hand on a pass. Then Catawba killed the clock. The clincher came when Samples surprised UCA with a deep sideline throw to Arnold Gaither with barely a minute remaining. “Arnold had two drops today,” said Bennett. “But we’ll trade two drops for that big catch.” Told that the throw to Gaither was quite a gamble by reporters, Bennett explained that the real gamble would have been to give ACU the ball back, even with just seconds to work with. And Conque agreed. “Catawba only gave us five possessions (29 plays) in the second half,” he said. “That’s not many at-bats.” And Catawba’s rejuvenated defense made sure the Bears struck out. *** NOTES: Catawba’s tackling in the secondary was terrific in the second half. ... Samples had two short TD runs and a scoring pass to Means in the first half. Bennett’s cure for Samples’ illness? “A shot in the rear end,” laughed the coach. ... Big James McDowell set up Catawba’s first score with a pick. ... Valdosta beat Fort Valley State 40-24. ######

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